The Pokémon universe is a diverse place. Not only in terms of the huge variety of Pokémon, but also because of the variety of experiences within it. Many games set within this universe have shown us different sides of series. Having said that, the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series has always felt a bit like an outsider. It has never been the one that first comes to mind when you hear the word "Pokémon" and "game" in the same sentence. The question is whether this is fair, or whether Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon once and for all puts these dungeon crawlers on the poké-map.
As we've seen before, the game starts with a personality quiz. The background is made up of whatever the 3DS/2DS camera is pointing towards, and is thereby creating the sensation that right now we are in the real, human world. Through the personality quiz you find out which Pokémon and also which new best friend is your ideal match. Although it's something we've seen before, it's a nice detail. You can, however, choose whether or not to play as the Pokémon the quiz matches you to, or whether to go in a different direction. If so there are a lot of options. You can actually choose from twenty Pokémon, which also includes the three starting Pokémon from previous games.
The first thing that happens in the game is that you wake up in the Pokémon world. But you have no memory of your past life, except you know your name, and that you're supposed to be a human. The background which previously was made up of whatever the camera was pointed at, is now replaced with the characteristically colourful and lively Pokémon universe.
Before you have time to either admire the cheerful new world, or even be alarmed by your transformation, three Baheeyems jumps out and start attacking. You must escape from this situation, and in your frantic attempt you end up crashing directly into a Nuzleaf. He sees your panicked expression and immediately takes you under his wing - or his leaf if you will. He helps you get away from the attackers and leads you to his home in the town, Serene Village. And this is where the game gets started.
Perhaps "gets started" is too strong. The game takes forever to build up a head of steam. Instead of kickstarting the story, we ended up in what seemed like the longest tutorial session in recent memory, where you were literally being sent to school. Every day you would wake in the game, meet up with your new best friend, go to school with said friend, get picked on by the school bullies a bit, and sit in class for the rest of the day. Some days also involve a rescue of the class wimp or maybe even a school trip into a dungeon.
If you don't think that this sounds particularly harrowing, you are quite right, it's not. It was a struggle to chew through this part of the game and several times along the way we started to believe that this was all it had to offer. But thankfully our prayers were heard when we finally met an Ampharos. Without revealing in what context or why, this Pokémon introduced us to the game's missions. The endless tutorials now seemed to fade away and just a few missions later the game finally opened up. Now we could now really venture out into the Poké-world, where we were greeted with a much better story and more exciting dungeon experiences.
The missions you have to complete are distributed through a network of Pokémon. We wish that these missions offered little more variation than they do, but at this point in the game we were just so happy to finally have a goal, that we threw ourselves at whatever they could offer. The most frequent missions you'll encounter are things like saving a lost Pokémon, finding a lost item in a dungeon, helping someone beat a particularly strong Pokémon, or drinking tea with a certain character in a dungeon (naturally). The triviality of it all disappeared, at least for a time.
The reward for completing these missions is that you come to know the Pokémon you've just helped. They're now considered part of your team, and that means you can recruit them to explore dungeons with you, and that is a really big help when you are roaming around as a level 19 Turtwig and Fennekin. Being able to team up with a level 50 Dragonite means that you can now kick some serious Poké-butt! But not only are they now a part of your team, they also introduce you to their friends. That means that you can complete missions for them at some time and thus constantly expand your network and your team. It's actually possible to meet all of the (approximately) 720 Pokémons that we have seen throughout the generations. It gave us something to keep playing for, as it will for those who want to meet them all.
But how are things inside the dungeons? Both good and bad, actually. On the positive side these dungeons are made in a variety of environments with their own accompanying music and mood. It's a pleasure to see what kind of different environments there are, and the opponents you meet throughout are also different from dungeon to dungeon. Furthermore, they're all created randomly each time you get into one. Therefore it technically ought to be a new experience each time a dungeon is visited. But negatively speaking, this only works at the beginning of the game. When you've fought your way through thirteen levels in some cave, you really don't care that the next level is going to look a bit different, you just want to get out of there.
However, there is salvation in the middle of this trivial Poké-existence. The strategic layer, which is incorporated into these dungeons, has several elements, each of which adds something extra to the experience. One of them is the stamina bar. In this case it's seen as a hunger-meter which slowly runs out, unless you eat some berries and apples to be able to continue exploring. The challenge is that you only start with twenty-four spaces in your small bag, and therefore you have to think carefully about what you want to pack. It can be crucial whether or not you have remembered revitalising seeds, the wand that paralyses the entire room (which is especially good for boss fights, in fact so good that it felt a bit like cheating), or the berries that will replenish your health.
The next strategic layer is the new so-called Emeras and Looplets. Looplets are a form of collar with built-in small holes that can be filled by Emeras (magical gemstones). These magical stones have many features. For example, they can detect where all the enemies are on any given level, they can prevent your Pokémon from falling asleep, and so on and so forth. They can be placed strategically with one of the three Pokémon you bring with you into every dungeon. But the really challenging thing about these stones is that they only lie on the ground in a dungeon for a certain amount of time before they're smashed. And moreover, they can't be taken out of the dungeon which means you must start from scratch every time.
But we're not quite finished with the strategy. There is still one more layer, which you'll find during combat. We're talking about more than just using a water type against a fire type. Every time you move in these dungeons, your enemies move as well. This means that you must always consider which way you will go and how many steps to take in order to avoid bumping into your enemies. Having said that, you might want to hit your opponent at a specific moment so that you'll be the one to land the first blow. When all these strategic elements are tied together, the dungeon-exploring becomes an enjoyable balancing act. While you might like to explore every room and collect all the items within, you must constantly prioritise what you will fit in your bag, and what your hungry stomach can manage.
Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon has a lot to offer. While the game has just the right Pokémon spirit in the form of an amusing universe full of colour, life and unique personalities, the plot doesn't work all that well. Don't get us wrong, the story is quite cosy and warm, but it gets started way too slowly. After that the game is at risk of becoming repetitive, because you're basically exploring dungeon after dungeon, and it's hard to find inspiration to continue playing. We wanted the story to drive us forward because the gameplay itself is not strong enough to carry the weight of the entire game. However, we reckon that if you just play the game in small doses, you might appreciate it a bit more. If you do manage to get through the laborious opening you can expect a better experience. After that the game picks up the pace, gives you something to play for and gets much better.